Breastfeeding as a signifier of social status

status - name from wooden letters. Office desk, informative and

The benefits of breastfeeding for term babies in industrialized countries are trivial. So why is there is panic around breastfeeding rates? Because breastfeeding functions as a class signifier. It’s not about what a baby needs; it’s about a mother and how she wishes to present herself to other women.

I’m not the only person who thinks so. A new paper, When is the breast best? Infant feeding as a domain of intrasexual competition, makes a similar case.

Dominant women adopt displays of status that are costly and thus difficult or impossible for lower-status women to emulate.

[B]reastfeeding or not breastfeeding can serve as a means of displaying status within the context of intrasexual competition. We argue that dominant (i.e., wealthy) women are likely to adopt … displays that are costly and thus difficult or impossible for lower-status women to emulate.

What do they mean by intrasexual competition?

…[W]omen (and/or their families) pay a dowry to their husband upon marriage in highly stratified societies… This is suggested to be a domain of female competition as it is a method to acquire a wealthy husband. Essentially, the higher the dowry … the more likely a woman will acquire a wealthy husband. An- other example of female competition that is observed in wealthy modern societies in dressing in the latest fashion trends and purchasing luxury items which depicts a woman’s wealth and can therefore threaten rival women.

It’s all about women competing with each other for reproductive success.

How does breastfeeding function as a form of intrasexual competition?

We argue that the changes in who breastfeeds under different environmental pressures can help shed important light on the possible evolutionary motives underlying of women’s competitive, reproductive, and breastfeeding choices.

In modern, wealthy countries:

…[W]ealthier and/or more educated mothers tend to have higher rates of breastfeeding than their less wealthy/educated peers… Lower-income mothers in these countries tend to acknowledge the superiority of breastfeeding over formula, but refer to a lack of social and/or financial support (i.e., an inability to stay home from work) as important reasons for why they do not invest as much in their infant via breastfeeding… [B]reastfeeding may be an evolutionarily honest (i.e., costly and hard to fake) signal of a woman’s ability to invest in her child relative to other women.

But in developing countries, the opposite is true:

…[W]omen in developing countries reported that the use of infant formula is viewed as more prestigious and breastfeeding is associated with poverty. In other words, providing formula may be a social signal of a mother’s prestige and wealth in developing countries because the aforementioned cost of infant formula and the scarcity of good water serve as honest signals of a woman’s capacity to invest in her offspring.

How about pre-modern cultures?

..[T]he invention of resource inequalities allowed some women to replace their own milk with that of other mothers… the outsourcing of breastfeeding was a relatively common strat- egy among wealthier historical women in Europe and Japan (Badinter, 2012). Thus, in contrast to some general suggestions that wealthy women will generally choose to invest heavily in their offspring, there is evidence that some wealthy women have historically done the opposite …

All these cases represent a departure from the behavior of hunter-gatherer cultures where all children were breastfed by their mothers.

What has led to the changes? Intrasexual competition.

What should be a simple decision to provide one’s child with the best nutrition available instead becomes both a decision about life history resource allocation (e.g., sacrificing time, energy, and future employment opportunities) and a statement to other women about one’s capacity to make those sacrifices to make one’s child more competitive…

In contrast, in less developed and/or in historical societies, women may be able to outcompete other women via fecundity if they possess sufficient resources. Not breastfeeding one’s infant for a prolonged period removes lactational amenorrhea, allowing for a reduced interbirth interval. If a wealthy mother can afford a reasonable substitute for breastmilk (e.g., formula or wet nurses), then she can increase her relative reproductive success by physically investing less in each infant and instead investing in having more offspring.

The authors conclude:

The extant literature of the historical and cross-cultural (specifically developed vs. developing countries) practices of breastfeeding provides important insights into women’s decisions of whether or not to breastfeed. From a feminist perspective, the variation in breastfeeding practices highlights the agency of women in controlling their own body for their own benefit (albeit through their offspring)…

Instead of insisting “breast is best,” we should be supporting women to make the choice that is best for them and their family.

Although it may be impossible to completely eliminate evolutionarily predisposed comparisons of who is a better mother/woman, or whether/when breast is the best, we would much rather see individual and societal energy focused on supporting informational and practical practices that help women freely choose the best options for themselves and their infants.

Her baby, her body, her breasts, HER choice!

  • alongpursuit

    I feel like breastfeeding is also a signifier of health status too (which is part of social status in our fitness-obsessed society). I had very insufficient supply with both babies. I still have no real idea why this was the case, but some other moms were ready to offer arm-chair diagnoses like PCOS, thyroid problems, being (slightly) overweight, being old (late 30s), being too anxious, being exposed to too many endocrine disrupters or having a poor diet/not drinking enough water. Yes I’m anxious, old and slightly overweight, but I think many moms are and they still manage to breastfeed. I don’t have any other symptoms of hormonal problems. But my impression is that as a mom who was unable to exclusively breastfeed, I’m seen as less healthy.

    And, of course, breastfed babies are higher in status also because they’re supposed to be healthier too! My poor little formula-fed children look like Dickensian orphans compared to the robust and radiant breastfed kids, haha!

  • Anna

    Are we not starting to see more breastfeeding amongst the lower income groups though? It seems like it with groups like FABIE – full of barely literate Becky’s and lots of “y’all”. I wonder how the goal posts will have to be moved? Also does women working and making their own money affect competitiveness amongst women? We see the “new” thing amongst lactavists seems to be criticising pumping – because that allows women to be independent. Is this the goal posts moving?

  • Luke Jones

    Breastfeeding is better for the baby and the mother. Immune system health, chronic disease risk, and weight gain/loss are all in the healthier direction for breastfeeding babies and mothers. Formula is expensive and has no immune system benefit. I don’t know why the “poor” sectors don’t do it more.

    • fiftyfifty1

      ” I don’t know why the “poor” sectors don’t do it more.”

      If you ever breastfed a baby you might have some idea…

      • Mel

        Or been around low SES people.

        Or read a book or two about poverty.

        Or worked in retail/food service/factory and/or housekeeping.

        Or thought about it for 30 seconds.

      • AnnaPDE

        Now now now, he doesn’t need knowledge to mansplain! After all, women are know to be too stupid to come up with these easy solutions to complex problems.
        Exactly like how we’re wasting so much money on sanitary pads and tampons instead of listening to droves of competent men, who have long discovered the much more efficient solution of just holding in our periods until we get to the toilet. Who cares about details of how bodies work (or the world, for that matter).

    • Anna

      Yes correct, you don’t know why.

    • rational thinker

      You made a claim ( a lot of claims) now show us your proof, because right now you sound like a privileged ass.

    • Sarah

      You not knowing that says a great deal more about you than it does about the ‘poor’ sectors. Because honestly, the barriers are incredibly obvious if you think about it.

    • Sarah

      You not knowing that says a great deal more about you than it does about the ‘poor’ sectors. Because honestly, the reasons why lower income women might not breastfeed are incredibly obvious if you give the matter any real thought.

  • I just came across this today. I couldn’t stop rolling my eyes long enough to finish it.

    https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/bfm.2019.29144.psb